Parenting Inside Out – Clarify Your Focus


Parenting is hard work. Even when we intend to do best, it is easy to slip into patterns that are less than productive and even unhealthy. Someone referenced the above diagram online, attributed to Dr. Meg Meeker from the Strong Parent Project, and I instantly knew I needed to evaluate the way I spend my time, energy, and focus as a parent.  I picked up a copy of one of Dr. Meeker’s books (which I found wonderful) and dug in.  One of the things I am working on is to shift the focus of my parenting away from false finish lines and toward the stuff that matters most.  Our culture often measures success in terms of external factors. We spend a lot of time as parents talking about grades, sports, clothes, and other things in the outer circle.  As a youth pastor, most of the concerned parents I talk to are worried about such things.  They don’t like their daughter’s boyfriend.  They are concerned about their son’s grades.  They want to know how to navigate the drama with their teenager’s social circle or how to help them succeed on the sport’s field.  Yet our kids would be better served and prepared for life when they leave our care if we shift our focus to their inner world. We need to shift our parenting from our child’s outer circle to their inner circle. Their outer circle consists of things like, school, sports, friends, and work. Their inner circle consists of your child’s morals, beliefs, character, and faith. These are what will last in your child’s life when school and friendships and sports have faded. And most importantly, when you’re not there to parent them anymore.

Here is a complication in this – behavior can be corrected in the moment, while character can only be cultivated over time.  You can hold a teen accountable for their behavior immediately (What would have been a better choice?).  Character changes slowly.  Character develops intentionally, but it does so in an almost invisible process.  We need to do the hard work of shaping our children internally: their virtue, their worldview, and their core beliefs.  I am talking here about fighting for their hearts and shaping them as people, not controlling their behavior. This means that TIME is the most important resource you have to manage as a parent. We are only given so much of it, and we cannot manufacture more of it. The psalmist was on to this when he wrote Psalm 90:12 “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  In a song about the frailty of the human condition, we find this prayer.  This is such good advice for parents, regardless of where we are in the journey.  My own kids seem so young, and I often assume I have all the time in the world, but the truth is much more sobering.  If we blink, we might miss it. They just grow up. Time marches on without your permission. I do not have all the time in the world, so I must learn to spend the time that I have with my children wisely. The truth is that my kids and yours were on their way out the door the minute they were born.  God entrusted each of our children to us so that we can form their character, their hearts, and their attitudes. These things are ONLY cultivated over time.  So we don’t have any time to lose.

Sports are great.  School is important.  Still, when we focus on their internal world, the external concerns will take care of themselves.  When we focus solely on the external realities, the internal priorities are neglected and underdeveloped.  We will end up with young people who have had every opportunity yet have shallow and underdeveloped character. More than anything, this is about changing your mindset and your focus.  You still need to give teens boundaries; you still need to give them guidance.  You still want to provide them opportunities and hope they end up happy and successful, but your focus needs to be on their internal world.  Focus on the heart.  Shepherd the heart.  Shape the heart.  Win the heart.  This happens through attention, affection, and protection.

Echo Parent Summit – Preparing for the college transition


This is from 2013, but I think its still good reading for parents preparing to send their teens off to college.

Originally posted on Echo Parent Forum:

Echo recently sent its largest graduating class ever out for their first year of college.  I have had many conversations with parents and college freshmen this month, some of them have been encouraging and some of them have been concerning.  Echo reaches many parents with older teens, and for them the college transition is very close at hand.  Others have young teens, and maybe you have even believed the myth that the college transition is a distant dream.  Here is the cold, hard truth: your child started the journey out the door the day they were born.  They will all leave, that is the way of the world.  How they will leave, whether they stay gone, and whether they succeed has SO much to do with how we prepared them for this challenge.  Your son or daughter will leave your door and go face the world with only the…

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“Meh”ssiah? Is Jesus cool with your comfortable indifference?


Many people are casual fans of Jesus.  They aren’t comfortable with words like devotion, discipleship, adoration, or worship…those words sound extreme and fanatical.  Jesus is alright.  They assume that Jesus is just fine with their indifference, because well, He’s Jesus.  People like Jesus, because Jesus is quite likable.  Behind this casual appreciation for Jesus is often a picture of Jesus that is either lazy, uninformed, or both.  Sometimes this is the result of recreating Jesus in our own image.  We value our comfort above everything, so we want to imagine that Jesus will value our comfort over everything too.  We just ignore the things about Jesus that make us uncomfortable.  If we ignore them, maybe they will just go away? We want to be happy, so we create in our imaginations a Jesus that wants us to be happy above all.  We like to feel good, so we want Jesus to be concerned with our good feelings.  The trouble is, we won’t encounter our counterfeit Jesus in the pages of scripture.  This safe and sanitized version of Jesus just isn’t there.  No government would have ever bothered to crucify such an innocuous individual. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels was controversial.  He was a dissident.  Jesus was a revolutionary that taught dangerous and extreme ideas about God, life, and culture.  The Jesus we meet in the Gospels talked about God in such a way that He was labeled a blasphemer by the religious leaders.  He fought hard against injustice and challenged the leadership and culture of His day.  Jesus had a way of comforting the afflicted and unsettling the comfortable.  Each of us is faced when we truly look at Jesus with a polarizing choice: adoration or rejection.  It is very hard to stay safely and comfortably in the middle.  Jesus is not safe, but He is good.  Jesus is not tame, but He is beautiful.  Mark’s Gospel paints this picture well in the following narrative.

Mark 11:12-21 –

12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

A few things are pretty shocking about this passage. First, it seems out of character for the sugar and spice and everything nice version of Jesus to blast a poor innocent tree with holy wrath.  He is hungry, and wants some breakfast, but the tree doesn’t want to cooperate. It becomes worse when Mark’s Gospel implies that it is not the time for the tree to produce fruit. If something was wrong with the tree, it would be a little more bearable, but to curse a tree that isn’t even supposed to have fruit yet? That is just unreasonable.  I think the general idea is that the time to bear fruit is when Jesus comes looking for it, but I also think there is more to this passage.  I don’t think Jesus is really mad at the tree.  I think his anger is directed someplace else.  The way the narrative of the tree is interrupted by the events of Jesus’ visit to the temple give us a literary clue.  The fig tree forms a literary frame for the story of the temple.  What Jesus is really raging about is the fruitless and corrupt state of affairs he finds at the temple.  Jesus cannot abide the empty, self-focused, and exploitative religion he observed in the temple of Jerusalem.  This reminds me of Martin Luther’s visit to Rome.  People are looking for God, and instead of finding God they find a door closed in their faces and all kinds of hoops to jump through.  What if Jesus visited your church today? Would he hate our religious constructions? Would Jesus tear apart our temple remind us of the truth of the Kingdom of God?

Here is one thing I think Jesus would challenge: Any religion where comfort gets in the way of mission.

The issue with the fig tree is that it didn’t produce fruit when Jesus required it.  The faith of the Jews needed to be reformed.  It had become something that was focused inwardly, on the comfort and care of people that looked down on outsiders and relished in their privileged status. What is the fruit Jesus is looking for? I think there is a clue in a detail that Mark includes. Mark includes this phrase: My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” This would make much more sense if we were present when Jesus said it, but because we are not we need to understand something of the geography of the temple. It consists of several different courts. The outermost court was called the gentile court, followed by the women’s court, then Israel’s court, then the priests’ court, and finally the holy place and the most holy place. This action of selling livestock and changing money is happening in the Gentile Court. They were providing a legitimate service to pilgrims from all over the world that have come to sacrifice at the Temple. This is about convenience. It would be easy to exploit the poor pilgrims, and that makes Jesus angry, but there is something else going on here. Jesus’ rebuke includes the phrase “prayer for all nations.”  This is reminiscent of the call of Abraham, where he and his descendants were invited into a unique relationship with God, where they would be blessed by God to be a blessing to all the nations of the world. What is going on here illustrates how far Israel is from the heart of God and from their covenant. This court is the ONLY place a seeking Gentile could come and experience the presence of the God of Israel. Now, slowly, their sacred place of worship has become a market for the convenience of the “elite” and the “chosen.” The only place where a Gentile can come and pray and seek the one true God is now filled with the sounds of a shopping mall! This is the only place he is allowed to set foot, everything else is “off limits” to him. What they have done in the temple is to shut out any seeking Gentiles from the presence of God. They have become so focused on themselves; their own needs and convenience that they have forgotten their commission to reach the world for the one true God. Jesus is angry because those seeking God were being shut out from his presence.

I wish this didn’t happen in churches today, but the truth is that far too often the language and programming are built exclusively for the insider.  We make the tragic mistake of excluding outsiders for the sake of making things more comfortable and convenient for the insiders. We often program and message and operate in a fashion that is only accessible to those familiar with the church subculture.  I wonder what the Jesus of the Gospels would have to say about that.  Which of our tables would he overthrow? Would he rage against our men’s prayer breakfast, our “Christian” concerts, our merchandising, and our celebrity worship? Would Jesus find a space where skeptical, curious, and seeking outsiders could come to have questions answered and feel close to the God that they long to meet? Would Jesus find your church to be concerned with the outsiders or with the insiders? I think Jesus would unsettle the people safely hiding within the subculture we have created.  I think Jesus would rattle us a bit, reminding us about God’s concern for those far from Him.  God cares much more about you engaging your culture than about protecting your comfort. 

Rooted in Community


It has been over two decade since the Search Institute released their framework of “developmental assets,” a set of skills, experiences, relationships, and behaviors that enable young people to develop into successful and contributing adults.  The more of these assets young people acquire, the better their chances of succeeding in school and becoming happy, healthy, and contributing members of their communities.  When it comes to the assets that support strong, thriving, enduring faith, being rooted in community would be close to the top of my list.

The support structure of solid relationships does more to support and encourage growth in faith than any other single factor I can identify.  Students that are surrounded by nurturing and multidimensional relationships have an immense advantage on the road to thriving faith.  That said, in our hyper-connected culture it can be ironically difficult to connect meaningfully to life-giving community.  We tend to opt in for countless shallow digital connections and neglect the kind of face-to-face and heart-to-heart soul supporting friendship that is slow to develop and difficult to maintain.  The early church leaders described such beautiful unity and profound connection that defined the Jesus movement, but it can seem kind of foreign to our experience of casual and superficial relationships.  Peter encouraged one early community of faith with these words: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”  (1 Peter 2:9-10)  I love this: you weren’t always a people, but now you are the people of God.  Not individuals, but a community; a beautiful union of beautiful people being remade in the likeness and image of God.  This reality is something that can anchor your soul.  If you push your roots down into community, you will find true strength.  Here are a few aspects of community that teens seem to struggle with:

  1. Multi Generational Community – This is a complicated issue, but we need to talk about it.  Teenagers often neglect relationships with people above and below them, they know how to relate to people in their “tribe,” but they lack the skills to relate to other generations. There is something missing when your community of faith only includes people from your generation. There is something shallow, something lacking, when you don’t have the diversity of voices from other generations.  Not everyone is in the same place, and not everyone is in the same stage of life. We have segregated our ministry environments into age groups for good reasons, but this has some drawbacks as well.  It provides very little opportunity to do life alongside adults (even older adults) that follow Jesus.  We cannot learn from them, and they cannot learn from us. This is not an easy problem for us to solve, but we need to imagine creative solutions.  We need to find places where people can interact across the generations, enriching our community in meaningful ways.  I want to build a culture where we serve alongside people from different generations.
  1. Multi-Tribal Community –When you are a child, your world is impossibly small.  Children are very self-centered.  They quickly include mom and dad in their tribe, because they really need their parents.  For a long time, your world is pretty small.  Your world consists of you and your family.  Then you go off to school and your world gets a little bigger.  By the time you are a teenager, you might have a firmly established tribe of other teens that are like you.  When you grow and develop, you end up leaning into that tribe to establish your autonomy from your family of origin. Yet when you really mature, your world gets even bigger.  You can move past your self-centered world, even your tribal identity, and begin to embrace a larger chunk of humanity.  This is one of the marks of spiritual maturity: when your community goes beyond your tribe. When Jesus chose his twelve disciples, he intentionally selected people across a diverse spectrum of cultural and political tribes within Judaism.  For example, Simon the Zealot likely hated and resented Levi the tax collector.  There were so many barriers that should have prevented them from connection, but they became united in Christ anyway.  Things that divide tribes in the cafeteria and in the hallways should not divide once you step into the church. This is a family where such things are irrelevant because of Jesus.
  1. Multi-Dimensional Community – the other element that I think is essential to community is multi-dimensionality.  What I mean here is to have people above you, investing in and pouring into you, to have people alongside you supporting and encouraging you, and finally to have people below you that you are investing in and pouring into them.  Having the right people around you makes such a difference.  Learning to relate to others on different levels is one of the hallmarks of maturity.  This is not automatic, it is something you seek out, develop, and a skill you need to learn.
    1. Mentors investing in you – Learning to be invested in, to receive guidance and correction and inspiration from people further along in their spiritual journey is a skill we need.  Everyone wants mentors, but this generation seems to have an unhealthy attitude about what a mentor is supposed to do. Be careful not to allow a sense of “entitlement” to creep into this relationship. Be willing to be the one that does the work. You are the one that wants to learn, you should be the one pursuing the relationship. If you want good mentors, you need to understand that good people are busy people.
    2. Friends alongside you – Learning to lock arms and live alongside others is another essential skill.  We all have friends, but I mean something different than just having any friend. This is someone that gives you strength and helps you be a better version of yourself. It is a friend of the soul.
    3. People you can invest in – Having people that you are actively investing in and intentionally helping can make such a huge difference in your spiritual development. Who are you pouring yourself into? Who is looking up to you? You will grow more through this kind of relationship than any other. When you learn to be a contributor and not just a consumer, you are moving toward a new level of maturity.

Rooted in Love

Rooted-content-1Echo continued our conversation about strengthening the roots of our faith with a reality that Jesus identified as the center of Kingdom ethics – Love.  Strong, enduring, Christ-centered faith must be rooted in Love.  Jesus prayed that love would be the defining characteristic of His new community. Jesus taught that the root of all the commandments is love. Jesus helped us imagine a different sort of humanity, one where selfish and hateful attitudes are replaced with selfless love as we allow the life of Christ to grow within us. He talked about being connected to the Vine, the source of life. As we learn to abide in Him, we have life. Apart from the Vine we can do nothing. This kind of love has very little to do with our culture’s definition of the term.  What if our love was rooted not in our emotions or in our feelings, but in our connection to Jesus? Think about the beauty that would be built in our world if we loved like God loves. Look at what Paul prayed for the community of faith in Ephesus:

Ephesians 3:14-21 – “I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may have power, together will all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Paul prays that the Ephesians would receive specific knowledge – the knowledge of the Love of Christ.  Paul prays that through the Spirit the glorious riches of God’s power will strengthen God’s people in their “inner being.”  Don’t miss this.  This is not a shallow intellectual understanding, like you know this trivial fact or that. Paul prays for the Spirit of God to impart something wonderful deep in the hearts of His people.  This is phrase, the “inner being,” in the Greek language refers to the personal core of each individual.  It is the seat of the will, the center of belief, and the conscience.  Paul is praying that the Holy Spirit would impart truth so deep down in them it would change their instincts and impact the way they see everything.  We use the phrase “change of heart” to describe this kind of internal transformation.  This is about the core, our true selves, and our deepest held beliefs.  Think about the way that you know your name, your family relationships, or the loyalty of your best friend. This is the kind of knowledge Paul has in mind. It is about Jesus coming and dwelling in our hearts through faith.

This transformation, this impartation has us rooted and well founded in love (agape).  Paul’s prayer is that through the Spirit, these people would experience the love of Christ at the core of their being.  Paul is talking here about a power from within – that power comes from the knowing and experiencing the crazy-big Love of Christ! I invite you: get ROOTED in the LOVE of Christ. Let your roots grow down deep into the soil of His Love for you.

This love is inexhaustible.  I love the poetry of Paul’s dimensional description of Christ’s love. When Paul prays that they would understand how wide, long, high and deep the love of Christ is for them, he is inviting them to wonder at the expanse of Christ’s love.  It is wide enough to include every individual of every kind in every age in every world.  There was no limit to the length that Christ would go to reach us with His love, going even to the cross.  In depth, Christ descended to the humility and poverty of the human condition, accepting even death.  In its height, the love of Christ raises us higher than we could ever reach on our own, seating us in Heaven with our Father as His children and heirs.   No one is outside the love of Christ, no place is beyond its reach.  Every time we learn something new about the Love of God, there is yet more to learn.  It is inexhaustible.  We learn this truth, according to Paul, together with all the saints.  It binds us one to another in unity.   Here is something that we need to wrestle with: we enjoy the limitless love of God for us…but we do not always easily accept the limitless and sweeping love for other people.  We struggle with the idea of God making no distinction between “us” and “them.”  We like to think of ourselves as worthy of the love of God, while others maybe not so much.

This love surpasses understanding.  This is a huge point for you to consider.  We sometimes treat the love of God as a simple thing that we can easily understand.  The love of Jesus is the subject of simple nursery songs and slogans. I think teaching children the love of Jesus is a great idea, but I also want people to experience the power and depth and magnitude of God’s love. Paul is talking here about something so vast and expansive that we have yet to wrap our understanding around its measure.  Paul himself talks about struggling to grasp the mystery of God’s Love.  Paul is saying here that comprehending the love of God is a spiritual exercise that can keep them busy for the rest of their lives.  This is a little paradoxical, talking about “knowing what surpasses knowledge.”

This love is unconditional.  We spend so much time looking for affirmation on the outside.  We wonder if we are enough and we ask that question in every relationship and in every moment.  We endure nagging little voices, disgusting voices, lying voices, that tell us we are no good, that we do not matter, that we are not enough.  We are in constant search from the world around us for affirmation that we matter.  We ache in our emptiness, longing for approval and for affirmation.  Paul is describing something completely different here.  Paul describes affirmation and truth that come from within.  They come from the overflow of the love of Christ in our “inner being.”  Jesus fills our hearts with mind-blowing reality-defining truth-amplifying love.  One of the most powerful realities in scripture is the way that God loved us before we met any criteria or performed in some certain way or established the right conditions.  While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  While we were enemies of God in our minds, God reached for us.  There are no conditions that we need to meet to establish this love; God loves us because we are His.  I believe this – if you can get this truth down in your core, so much that tempts you and distracts you will be rendered powerless. You will find the kind of strength that David rested in when he wrote: “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me.” You will enjoy the confidence of Paul that wrote: “If God is for me than who can be against me?” You will find the unshakable truth that we are more than conquerors and that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

If you get the love of God into your soul, into your inner being, everything will change.  Everything else will fall into place. If you can get how much God loves you and cares for you and longs to be near you past your doubts, past your fears, past your rationalizations and into your core – if you know deep down in your DNA that God loves you and YOU ARE HIS, if the love of God sinks deep into your core, no lie can affect you.  No suggestion or insinuation can distract you.  No temptation can destroy you.  You will be rooted in the love of God.  Your identity will be secure; your confidence will be unassailable.  This is the core of rock solid faith.  God is FOR you.  God adores you.  The love of Jesus empowers and transforms you.  Love will change you.  Love will transform you.  Love will perfect you.  If you accept it.

Rooted in Grace


In my time as a follower and as a minster of Jesus, I have seen some students walk away from or fade away from their faith. Other students have endured over the years, growing into a person that embodies the love and beauty of Jesus. There are all kinds of reasons for the difference, but the consistent reality behind thriving faith is deep roots. We spend so much time worrying about what is above the surface of our lives. Looking the right way, sounding the right way, and having the right reputation. Yet what is on the surface does not always reveal what is beneath the surface. I have seen so many pretenders, so many people that looked the part and talked the talk but beneath the surface they were far from God and faking it. This is what Jesus meant when he focused on the heart and past the externals. The invisible roots, the support structure, are the most important need your soul. Appearances account for very little. True fruit comes from deep roots. Echo is exploring in this series realities that we need to grow down into, to become firmly rooted in. Colossians 2:6-7 – “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”


Rooted in Grace – Far too often, the bedrock of the Jesus Way gets replaced by some list of rules or expected behaviors. I see this over and over again. Rules are easy. People assume that rules will keep us holy, that rules will enable us to let people know the boundaries and the expectations of our movement. It helps us to be tough on sin and to do the right thing. Except it doesn’t. It doesn’t work. People get frustrated with something so shallow and so dependent on human effort. They fail their way into frustration or they fake their way into isolation and irrelevance. Show me someone who cannot accept the frustrating and mystifying reality of GRACE and I will show you someone whose faith is destined for failure. We don’t want to admit it, but we need grace. This is the stronghold of your identity in Christ and the reality that secures your relationship with God.  When you can get the truth of God’s grace deep down in your soul and you let it change the way you think about everything, you will never be the same again.  When you finally give up in your effort to earn the love of God, when you finally surrender your ability to produce the favor of God with your performance…you will discover the freedom grace offers.

  1. We needed the Grace of Jesus. Check out Ephesians 2:1-10 – We were by nature objects of wrath. But because of His love, God made us alive. It is by grace, not by works. This is not something we like to talk about, but this is an important reality to internalize. We were by nature objects of wrath. I know, that it is incredibly unpopular to talk about God’s wrath. The fact remains: humankind is in open rebellion against God. We are enemies of God in our own minds, in our darkened understanding we have made Him our enemy and placed ourselves in a state of rebellion. I know your objection: you are a good person. We all think that about ourselves. But our good is not good enough nor will it ever be. Something is broken on a deep level, deep down at the core of our being, and we cannot repair it. This is not bad news; it is the opposite of bad news. It is great news! It is the Gospel! For while we were depraved and broken and without hope, Jesus came and lavished us with His mercy and grace. Sin is a deeper problem than bad choices; it is a cancer of the heart. It is corruption down to your very nature. You and I in our effort are unable to fix this. This is one of the hardest realities to really accept even if it is easy to understand.   Grace is unmerited.  It is so difficult to accept something we do not deserve in a culture so highly focused on merit. It is part of capitalism; people get what they work for. We honor industry and initiative; we honor those individuals who make something of themselves. Yet here in God’s Kingdom, as one of the most basic and fundamental realities, we have this idea that we don’t make ourselves into anything good. God alone is remaking us. It is His grace that transforms us. If it depends on you and I and our imperfect effort, we couldn’t do it. God takes what belongs to Him and gives it to us. In this way, Grace is different than mercy. Mercy means that we will not receive the judgment and wrath we deserve. Grace is more than that. Grace means we will receive the favor and blessing and love that we do not deserve. We often think wrongly of grace that it means unlimited “second chances” so we can do better. This is not the Gospel. The Gospel is an even better story than mercy wiping the slate clean every time we fail. The Gospel is the offer to become someone better than we could become on our own. In the grace of Jesus, we move from enemies of God to His friends. We become His masterpiece. God’s grace transforms us into the kind of people that don’t want the junk that God’s mercy had to forgive us of. It is God’s power given to transform us.
  1. We need the Grace of Jesus. Every time I preach a message like this, or I talk about the wonders of grace, someone in their mind or out loud will think: “That is too easy.” They argue, if it is completely about grace and not connected with human effort in any way, than the most horrible of people are in the same category as me. I’m not sure why you are so certain you aren’t among the most horrible of people, but let’s talk about this anyway. Most religious people think we need some rules somewhere or people are going to walk all over the grace of God. The dichotomy is between two extremes: legalism and antinomianism. These are presented like the only two options. I don’t think so. I think that anyone that tramples the grace of Jesus has never truly understood it. People were saying this kind of thing in the early church as well, that if grace is so freely given we should just run around doing whatever we want because it doesn’t matter. Their error is in mistaking something that is free with something that is cheap. Grace is not cheap because it is free, but because it is free some people will hold it to be cheap. We value what costs us. This is what Dietrich Bonheoffer was trying to correct when he reminded us about the cost of grace. Costly Grace is something we all need to understand. It is costly because it cost the most beautiful life that was ever lived. It is grace because it gives to us the only true life. But let me go back to the idea that rules are going to make us better. They won’t. Paul has a long theological explanation of this is Romans 5-9. Paul’s argument is that GRACE is what is going to set you free from sin, not LAW. Romans 6:14“For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” Paul argues the rule intensifies the draw toward sin. Paul’s argument is that we are now dead to sin because we were buried with Jesus and raised again with Him. The life we have now is Jesus living within us. This is grace. It is the life of Christ that we did not deserve but we so desperately need. We can live into this truth! Elsewhere, Paul says this: Titus 2:11-15 – “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people.  It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope…” Our hope, strength, and encouragement to live right come not from willpower or fear or rules, but from grace. When you have received the beautiful and wonderful grace of Jesus, it breaks the power of sin. It dissolves addiction. It busts open the prison of guilt and shame and the need to perform. There is no greater motivation than to live a beautiful life than the beautiful and amazing grace of Jesus. When you live by grace, righteousness becomes gratitude; it becomes the overflow of love instead of obligation of law.
  1. We will need the Grace of Jesus. This is a complicated world in its corrupted state. Things are not always easy. Even with the grace of Jesus at work in your heart, redeeming and restoring your better nature, you will fail. As a pastor, this is something I want everyone in “my fold” to understand – how to fail. You will fail. This is my biggest issue with a merit-based system of faith. It doesn’t know what to do with failure. It doesn’t understand the heart of God. It promotes pretending as you struggle and hiding after you fall. Both of these behaviors are spiritually destructive and damaging to community. It is exhausting to live a faith that depends solely on your own merit. Judging others is exhausting. Judging yourself is hard work as well. You will need grace. You will need grace to be restored and to try again. You will need grace to become the person that Jesus knows you are. I don’t want anyone to leave our ministry without understanding this. Put your roots down deep into the soil of GRACE. Sink your faith into the reality that your standing with God is not dependent on your performance. God’s love is not conditioned on your obedience. Your relationship with God is rooted in God’s faithfulness and not yours. So grow tall. Grow deep. Withstand the winds of challenge, failure, and doubt. Your roots will hold. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is a gift of God.

Peace on Earth?


Peace on Earth.  This is a nice thought, but it is also a thought few of us actually take seriously.  It is idealistic, not realistic.  It is a nice sentiment, but it is not possible…or so we often think.  Our world is full strife and conflict.  Right now, our country is struggling to hold it together over racial tension.  Violence, mistrust, anger, and fear are spreading like wildfire.  Last week, on the same day the Christmas tree was lit in Rockefeller Center, riots broke out in protest of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer that choked a man to death.  We continue to hear reports about beheadings and public executions at the hands of ISIS.  It is hard to imagine peace on earth right now.  The same was true 2800 years ago, yet the prophet Isaiah wrote the following promise in a flash of inspiration.  This is a revelation of a better world, hope for a better future, and it would become the center of messianic longing for the remnant of Israel:

“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
    and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
    when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
    you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
    the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
    and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
    will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.”

-Isaiah 9:1-7

This promise was originally received in a time of great strife, instability, and anxiety.  King after king in Judah led the people further away from God and into idolatry.  Threatened with invasion from both Israel and Syria, Ahaz King of Judah reached out to the Assyrian Empire for help.  He could have trusted God for help, but he went against the advice of the prophet.  Assyria is the regional empire in whose shadow these small nations dwell under constant threat of invasion, annihilation, or annexation.  This is a bit like a mouse asking the cat to help resolve a conflict with another mouse.  Now, prompted by the invitation to intervene, Assyrian invasion of Judah is eminent.  As Isaiah predicted, Assyria assists in solving the present crisis only to replace it with another: the chances of being wiped out by the Assyrian war machine are almost certain.  People are afraid.  There is conflict and war all around them.  This passage is God’s promise in the midst of this horrible situation.  God is in control.  Destruction is coming, but God still has a plan.  The promise is a coming “messiah,” a deliverer that will set wrongs to right and bring lasting and true peace. At first, people assumed this anointed ruler was the young king Hezekiah. Long after Hezekiah’s death however, a remnant of God’s people longed for someone who would fulfill this promise completely. Even with this expectation, I am not sure anyone anticipated Jesus Christ. This passage was famously and masterfully incorporated into Handel’s Messiah, one of the most moving pieces of music in history.  Jesus is the “prince of peace” on a level that no one saw coming.

This is a promise of peace beyond human ability.  The theme of this section of Isaiah’s oracles is that every human solution to the nation’s problems will fail.  Their demise is the vehicle that will take them to a place of realization that only God can be trusted.  God’s revelation of light has come to those walking in great darkness.  It is when there seems to be no hope that God’s hope is most evident.  When Ahaz tried to trust in political alliances and military might, he ended up making a bigger mess of the situation.  God’s people have turned away from Him to covenant with pagan nations and trust in their strength, and they will reap the destruction they sowed.  The calamity is not the end of the story, but a chance for God to use the pain as a powerful tutor.  The promise of the Messiah does not come to a proud nation glorifying in its strength, but to a beaten nation, one tied in the furnace of affliction.  No, the darker the days, the brighter the flame of the dawn! The mention of Midian’s defeat is a reference to the story of Gideon, a story that underscores God’s strength and human weakness. God eliminated any cause for Gideon or his fighters to have confidence in human strength by dramatically reducing their number to 300 in a conflict against thousands.  God ensured that everyone would know the victory was His alone.  Where Judah has presently arrived in crisis because of their trust in human systems, alliances, and power – this reference is indicting.  They have led themselves into darkness, but God will lead them out of it.  The truth is that God is a better savior than we can be sinners, and He is better and finding us than we are at losing our way.  We can continue in rebellion, but not without great effort and determined resistance to the One who seeks to re-write our tragic story.  God is interested in bringing us something that we cannot achieve through human effort.

This is also a promise of peace beyond human imagination.  The prophet uses the symbols of the warrior’s boots and the bloody garments to represent warfare.  The rhythmic sound of marching boots is a powerful symbol of the noise of battle, while the bloody garments are a symbol for the pain and destruction left in the wake of war.  The poem does not describe victory in terms of one combatant overcoming his opponent, but the actual end of conflict.  The very implements of war will be burned up.  For this coming king, peace is not realized through conquest but through the end of warfare.  The destruction brought by war will itself be destroyed.  This prince is not a fierce warrior, but a little child.  A child appears insignificant and weak, but with God this weakness can be strength.  His rule is not established in military conquest but in God’s power.  This is not the power of the sword; it is the power over the hearts of humanity.  He reigns over a people transformed through their obedience to God’s will.  It is God’s Kingdom, and it will endure forever.  There is something unspeakably beautiful in the picture that Isaiah paints if you have eyes to see it.  This is a world at peace, a moral order, held together not by force or the threat of force but by love.  He is describing the Kingdom of God, where God’s will is established on earth as it is in heaven.  This cannot be achieved by political systems, though politics are not irrelevant.  It cannot be achieved through social work or through humanitarian aid projects. Human civilization will not climb to this lofty reality through technological advancement.  Organized religion cannot establish it through its programs.  This kind of peace, what the Hebrews called shalom, is almost a dream. This peace is only possible when people surrender their tools, their minds, and their wills to the Kingdom of God.  This king of peace is different than the warmongering empire builders and political connivers of Isaiah’s day (and our own!).  He is the one who establishes peace, not just advocates for it.

Human kingdoms are often established in tyranny and conquest, upheaval and rebellion.  The foundation of God’s Kingdom is justice and righteousness.  This was such a difficult thing even for the disciples to understand. They were still looking at Jesus like a powerful conqueror all the way up until the cross. It was only after the resurrection that the nature of God’s Kingdom and the depth of the peace that Jesus was to establish became clear.  This Advent season, walk toward peace.  Allow God’s Spirit to help you imagine a better world, then invite God’s Spirit to help you live into that vision.